"Kandinsky," the big exhibition of 95 oil paintings made between 1902 and 1942 by the visionary pioneer of abstraction, Vasily Kandinsky, is a show that looks like it was made expressly for the spiral ramp of the Guggenheim Museum. That's because in a sense it was.
Solomon R. Guggenheim, the museum's founder, was a major collector of Kandinsky's art, amassing no fewer than 150 canvases in his lifetime. (He died in 1949, five years after the artist.) The work was perhaps the most profound influence on the collector's thinking about nonobjective painting, which shed direct relationships to the visible world. Kandinsky instead explored the emotive possibilities of color and form, study central to avant-garde art for the next half a century.
In 1939, a scant decade after the collector bought his first Kandinsky, he opened the Museum of Nonobjective Painting -- the precursor to today's Guggenheim. And 20 years after that, Frank Lloyd Wright's radically designed Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue opened, showing just how much nonobjective art had informed a variety of advanced ideas. A powerfully expressive, light-filled void pierces the building's core.
Wright's building recently underwent a much-needed, beautifully achieved restoration. As a celebration of its 50th anniversary, the Kandinsky retrospective (running until Jan. 13) not surprisingly elicits a major "Wow."
Kandinsky, born into a prosperous Russian family in 1866, didn't turn away from conventional studies in law and economics in favor of art until he was 30. He left the University of Moscow to study painting in Germany, trading in business for bohemia.
Two events in Munich had a profound influence on his artistic direction. One was an encounter with Claude Monet's haystack paintings of the 1890s -- luscious, luminous canvases that began to dissolve worldly form into an ephemeral blaze of painted color. The other was attendance at a Richard Wagner concert; Kandinsky began to have his first inklings of the as-yet unimaginable possibilities for paintings that might be as thoroughly abstract as Wagner's richly textured music is.
Over the course of his career Kandinsky made three general types of paintings, each of which took its name from music's lexicon. "Impressions" were a direct response to what he saw in the visible world, heightened by the intense color of Matisse. "Improvisations" were spontaneous expressions, which allowed the play among abstract colored forms to speak. Finally, "Compositions" were thought-out and planned -- orchestrated Impressions and Improvisations, as it were, in which all the spatial and chromatic relationships were carefully calibrated in advance, frequently in drawings.
This evolution of Kandinsky's ideas about nonobjective painting seems to have guided the show's roughly chronological installation -- marvelously so. Guggenheim curator Tracey Bashkoff, who organized the retrospective with colleagues in Paris and Munich, has beautifully integrated the work with Wright's unusual building. The famous spiral ramp is loosely separated into three parts.
At the bottom of the ramp is the early work. Wright's spiral is divided into bays, where the rear wall of each tilts back, like an easel. The landscapes, Art Nouveau stylizations, Fauve-inspired experiments with color harmonies and full-fledged Impressions are like pictures fresh from Kandinsky's easel. The effect of the display is of an artist hard at work, trying things out.
Next come the Improvisations -- Kandinsky's breakthrough into nonobjectivity in the 1910s. Line, shape, color, surface, rhythm and other properties of painting develop according to a provocative internal logic.
These pictures evolved from many sources, not least the image of a horse and rider galloping through Bavarian-style mountains. Germany, like the United States, was undergoing the tumultuous upheaval of rapid industrialization and urbanization. Kandinsky's pastoral but exciting scenes of a horse and rider subtly evoke fairy-tale adventures and St. George confronting a fire-breathing dragon.
The motif puts the brakes on modernity. The disorientation that accompanies convulsive change gets rooted in something fundamental, ancient and even spiritual. Its forms disengage from observable representation -- the lumpy curves of a horse and mounted rider's head and back evolving into a black line (think of a 3 stretched out and tipped on its side) that pierces bright, brushy clouds of crimson, cobalt and gold. It cuts the work loose from worldly representation, recording instead the perceptual experience of the artist's inner life.
Several of these gorgeous canvases are grouped in a conventional gallery. But on the ramp, the fully nonobjective works are installed perpendicular to the floor, protruding away from the tilted rear wall on rods. Visually, a painting such as "Black Lines" (1913), with its orbs of brilliant color scratched over by thatched lines, appears to float in light-filled space. The effect is breathtaking.
In the past, when looking at "mere works of art" displayed in the bays, the spatial power of the yawning void in the center of Wright's forceful corkscrew building has at times felt intrusive -- as if something invisible but fearsome were sneaking up behind you. But not here. With Kandinsky the nonobjective paintings hum, fixed stars shining within a galactic vortex.
Finally, the Compositions are installed in the upper reaches of Wright's spiral. As befits a carefully mapped-out canvas such as "Composition 8" (1923), which partly recalls the orderliness of a musical score, Kandinsky's agitated brushwork and brilliant color are replaced by clean lines, geometric shapes and a softer palette. The installation design changes again. Here, perpendicular walls have been constructed within the bays, and the paintings hang on those.
Fleeing to Paris
Perhaps this more predictable method of displaying paintings is what gives the show's final section the slight feeling of letdown. Especially after the remarkable Improvisations, it looks conventional (and occasionally clumsy) -- which isn't how one expects to experience the late work of abstraction's pioneer.
Of course, Kandinsky's rigorous Compositions have long taken a critical back seat to the wild adventure of his early Improvisations -- not always fairly. "In the Black Square" (1923), with its geometric "landscape" motif inscribed on a white panel that seems to spin off-axis in a black void, elaborates the spare work of his countryman, Kazimir Malevich; this is as fine a painting as Kandinsky made.
Its geometry reflects his departure from Munich and arrival at the Bauhaus. Kandinsky had gone to work at the avant-garde design school in 1922, first in Weimar and then in Dessau, before the Nazis shut it down in 1933. Hitler condemned Modern art -- Kandinsky's included -- as degenerate, partly because ordinary Germans didn't understand abstraction; the dictator's aggressive promotion of sentimental figurative art gave the masses the illusion that their tastes rather than his were in Germany's driver's seat.
Kandinsky fled to Paris. He set up a studio in a suburban house and worked in relative isolation until his death, just before the end of World War II. The Compositions made during these dark years fuse microscopic biological forms -- amoebas, bacteria, fantastic cells, etc. -- with suggestions of ancient hieroglyphics and tribal pictographs. Surprisingly playful, given the grim reality of worldly events, the shapes are scattered across fields of mostly flat, pastel color.
The late paintings might not be as exciting as the ones from the 'teens, where you share Kandinsky's exuberant enthusiasm for unexplored territory. But seeing them again now surprised me. The poignancy of their determination to portray invincibility is inescapable. The Guggenheim's retrospective is an unexpectedly moving exhibition, one that reverberates against our own grueling times.